DEAR DR. NERDLOVE: Bottom line up front: cis bi man, 28, struggling with knowing how to even begin dating due to fundamentalist homeschooling.
So some background on me. I grew up home-schooled in an Evangelical Christian household. My opportunities to interact with peers were incredibly limited. My education was an utter joke, and that was at its worst on the subject of sex ed. I received basically no information (from my parents) until I was 16, and what they used wasn’t accurate sex ed but a “purity culture” resource aimed at 12 years olds called “Passport2Purity”, which spent 1 minute alluding to heterosexual PIV intercourse and the rest of it battering the audience with how we shouldn’t even think of getting close to doing that or we’d be defiled. I had more knowledge thanks to the internet but I was also punished for exploring this. Due to homeschooling I had no opportunities to explore even the rudimentary aspects of romantic experiences many others find growing up. I had a few crushes in the limited social spaces I had (youth group, theater, etc) but absolutely not enough experience with socializing to ever do anything. Also, homeschooling controlled my social opportunities so I wouldn’t have felt safe trying to date in my late teens anyway. The expectation I was taught was you must “date to marry” ONLY when absolutely ready to marry, and I unconsciously understood I “wouldn’t be worthy” most likely.
Over five years ago, I began “deconstructing” my upbringing and values. This was rather difficult, as I had been raised basically from birth in ways that my parents had intended to make this entirely impossible. My value and existence were supposed to be welded to Evangelical-fundamentalist Christianity and its demands on me. But I survived this, and am now an agnostic. I’ve even been able to join in and add to conversations on sites like Twitter where similarly-minded people discuss, analyze, and process that upbringing and where we go from here. Apparently I’m really good at dissecting purity culture for a non-specialist. A few years ago, I started doing therapy to explore the religious trauma (and what I now suspect is C-PTSD) from my high-demand upbringing. This has been helpful in a number of ways, but one aspect I have still struggled with is figuring out how to take action with exploring romantic or intimate relationships. This has been frustrating at times, as one of the things I never had agency over in my upbringing was my ability to explore these relationships, and now I still can’t figure out how to explore them even if I’m outside of that community.
The other major change since I began deconstructing occurred last year. I had enrolled in a bachelor’s program to finally try to complete a degree, and was living apart from my parents, but began to experience academic burnout, and a lack of community had a terrible impact on my mental well-being. I reached a point where I had to make a change, so I found an employment opportunity in the Pacific Northwest, and took a huge risk in moving cross-country to get a new start on my life. Through conversations online, I had formed friendships with several people in the area I was moving to. The dating opportunities situation still hasn’t really changed, though.
I’ve spent months trying to recover from the exhaustion of moving, and trying to make new communities and social groups is difficult. Attending meetups and other events on my own rarely goes well, as even with tools from my therapy, it’s overwhelming to try to navigate social spaces. I often rely on smaller gatherings of people I already know, so the growth of my social network has been slow. Also, a lot of the people I connected with through my religious deconstruction conversations are older than I am, and pretty much all have kids or are otherwise at a very different stage of life than I am. So far it seems unlikely I’ll find a dating opportunity through a friend of a friend right now. On dating apps – even with tons of work on my dating profile – I get virtually no interactions. I have tried multiple apps but at this point I’m so frustrated and burned out with the idea of them I don’t really want to try another one. They honestly feel psychologically harmful.
What I have been working on:
• I’ve done some therapy, mostly with DBT and EFT modalities, and I’m also researching ACT and NARM modalities (I am currently looking for a new therapist after my move).
• I have supportive friends who I can talk to about this.
• I’ve done a ton of reading and research on sexuality to make up for my parents’ silence/shame approach.
• Explored sexuality on my own as much as possible: varying my self-pleasure routines, exploring toys, ethical erotic media, fantasy, and realizing that I’m bi and capable of feeling attraction or desire towards more than one gender.
• I’ve attempted more mindfulness and loving-kindness stuff to get more comfortable with myself and what value I have.
• I am working on pursuing hobbies and interests, like board gaming: I’ve been building groups of friends and acquaintances to do occasional board games, and I’m trying to make a recurring thing of a few games I really like to develop more routine there
Right now, it feels like my biggest challenges are not knowing how to begin or start – seriously, like NOTHING ever seems to help. It really hurts to feel like I can’t figure out how to take action AND that everything depends on my actions and if I can’t “do something” then I just have to accept that I’m alone in this regard unless and until I can solve it. It feels like so much pressure, because I am just used to few people taking interest in me to strike up interactions even in normal social settings, and absolutely nothing at all when it comes to romantic or even flirty interactions. I also apparently don’t do well at communicating my distress or frustrations, or my problems are odd enough that few people I talk to have experienced them. I feel like the only advice I ever get is “use dating apps” or “go to meetups based on common interests and interact with a ton of strangers” – the latter I still find overwhelming and often disheartening, and the former I feel like I would rather cut a limb off than try again.
It has been really hard to always feel like, even after all this time, I still can’t solve this problem. I want to have some agency here, and explore aspects of intimate relationships as a whole that I have never had a chance to. But often it feels like I am also the thing holding myself back.
– (Seemingly) No Prospects in the Pacific Northwest
DEAR NO PROSPECTS IN THE PACIFIC NORTHWEST: OK, this is going to be said with sympathy, empathy and understanding: you slow your roll, NPPN. You’ve been through a lot of major life changes in a relatively short period of time, and I think you haven’t fully processed just how much is still in flux for you.
I understand that desire to make up for lost time. You’ve gotten out of a net that’s held you back and left you without some of the same experiences and lessons that a lot of your peers had, and you’ve been trying to rediscover who you are without the strictures and demands from your parents and your upbringing. And on top of that, you’ve pulled up stakes and moved across the country to a place that’s as far from your upbringing as possible and you’re trying to establish yourself there, on your own for what is likely the first time in your life.
That is a lot to deal with. Add in the likelihood that you’re dealing with C-PTSD and just the general AAAAAAAAAGH! of moving and making a home base for yourself and you’ve got more taking up your mental and emotional bandwidth than I think you realize.
This is why I think you’re trying to do too much, too fast and before you’re actually ready. You want to be ready, because you see so much that’s been denied to you and you want to finally be able to exercise the freedom you have. The problem, however, is that you’re not really ready yet. Much of what you’re feeling is coming from the disconnect between what you want and what you’re able to handle; the two aren’t in sync, and the disparity between the two is what’s f--king with your head.
I suspect that there’s also still a lot of shame and pain and confusion tied up in the dichotomy between your understanding of your sexuality and the spiritual upbringing you had, which only makes things harder.
To abuse a metaphor: what you have now is a house made of blocks all piled up on each other willy-nilly. Yeah, it’s standing up for now, but it’s incredibly unstable; there’s no underlying structure to support it and everything’s just shoved on top of everything else with no consideration for what might come next. It’s a hodge-podge of “OK, shove this bit here to hold this other thing up, now put this thing over here to counterbalance the sudden issue I created with that previous solution”, and a good stiff breeze would probably knock it over.
You’ve worked too hard and come to far to let it just fall over. But what you should do is slowly take it back apart and start from the beginning, rather than trying to get it done now. As frustrating as that may be – you’re 28 and starting your life for real! – starting slowly and starting with a sturdy, solid foundation and taking a more methodical approach to building your life is going to be faster and more efficient in the long run than running around trying to shove in supports and braces whenever a new issue crops up.
And to make matters more complicated, I think you’re trying to shove the wrong parts in to hold everything up.
Now what does this mean if we stop talking in metaphors and start talking practicalities?
Well, let’s start with taking dating off the table for now. Dating is the wrong solution for you right now, because you’re trying to solve the wrong problem. Your problem is that you feel isolated and alone… but right now, the isolation you’re feeling isn’t going to be solved by dating. It’s going to be solved by building a community for yourself and finding other people who get you.
This is why I think you should not worry about trying to date and instead put your energy into just focusing on getting established in the PNW. Moving is rough. Moving cross-country is rougher. Moving cross-country when you have very little of a support network is harder still. It’s no wonder that you’re exhausted and unable to really connect with folks the way you want. So give yourself permission to take dating off the table for a bit while you get settled. This isn’t forever, just for the immediate future.
Yeah, I know, that’s literally the opposite of what you want to hear. But trust me: you wouldn’t run a marathon when you have your leg in a cast, so don’t try to date when you’re still in the mental state you’re in. It’s not that you’re not strong enough or mature enough by any stretch. You’re incredibly strong emotionally – look at what you’ve accomplished so far! It’s just that your emotional resilience is almost entirely taken up by everything else in your life; you’re tapped out. Adding more to the pile will just mean you’re working with insufficient emotional resources.
So what do you do instead? Well, start with establishing that foundation. You’ve already made some good starts – finding friends in the area before you move is a perfect example. But that’s a starting point, and you still have more stuff that you need to address before you add relationships and dating to the mix.
One thing that you may want to prioritize is to find a community who do understand what you’ve been through. Feeling like you have other people – especially peers your age – who get you, who you feel can relate to what you’ve experienced is going to be important.
It can also be helpful to have that community as you try to heal the wounds you’re carrying around from your parents and your church.
Now I know you’ve said you’ve become an expert at picking these issues apart and you’ve moved to agnosticism, so I imagine what I’m about to say may raise your hackles. But I think one thing you may want to look into is what’s known as the Exvangelical community – people who, like you, are dealing with unlearning the things that they were forced into, re-examining their relationship with God, Christianity and their spirituality and deciding how faith fits into their lives now. To be fair: the Exvangelical movement tends to be more based around people who still have faith or identify as either theists or Christians of one sort or another. But having people who’ve been there, who can speak your language (as it were) and who can understand what you’ve experienced without needing a primer or intro course will be immensely helpful.
You might want to start with a couple podcasts. The Attached To The Invisible podcast is an exploration of faith and Evangelical Christianity from the perspective of attachment theory by a mental health perspective. That could be a good starting point for you as you work on separating yourself from your upbringing. The Almost Heretical podcast, likewise, features former Evangelical worship leaders, Biblical scholars and pastors who are re-examining Christianity from a progressive viewpoint and unpicking the lessons that they were brought up in. Even if you aren’t Christian any longer, hearing other folks from your former community talk about the problems can go a long way towards helping you feel more centered and understood, especially as a queer man from a repressive background.
I would also suggest finding a support group for newly out LGBTQ folks. As with trying to unlearn what your parents taught you is easier with peers who understand, being able to talk about the frustrations and confusion and heartache of trying to navigate your true sexuality with other people dealing with the same problems can help you feel less alone and less isolated. And the odds are good you’ll find more people who are closer to your age and better able to relate to your specific circumstances.
Feeling less alone and more understood will help take some of the stress and isolation you’re experiencing and give you more bandwidth to devote to other aspects of your life.
As a supplement to this, I’d suggest checking out Scarleteen and going through some of their resources there. Don’t let the “teen” part throw you; it’s incredibly valuable for adults too, especially when you’re facing a lot of this by yourself. I know you’ve been doing a lot of self-exploration, but having some guides and direction may help you answer questions you weren’t even aware you had or point you into other areas that will give you even greater insight into your sexuality.
While you do this, I’d recommend taking it easier with your social networking. Part of what you’re feeling is just pure overwhelm that’s leading to burnout by trying to do too much, too fast. Rome wasn’t built in a day, and you don’t need to have a sprawling network of friends and peers by next month. If you give yourself to let things build slowly, carefully and at a pace you can actually maintain, I think you’ll find that you have more success and less stress. If you take away the self-imposed push to be READY, NOW, then you won’t feel compelled to speed-run your way to Complete Social Fluency. Just as importantly, taking things slowly means you won’t find yourself rushing into connections and relationships (platonic and otherwise) that aren’t a good fit for you. It’s easy to leap into relationships just because they’re there and you feel like you should be in them. It’s a lot harder to extract yourself when you realize that maybe they’re a poor fit or don’t actually meet your needs.
And then, once you do extract yourself from them, you find yourself back in that same lonely, isolated feeling as before, but with an extra layer of self-recrimination for messing up.
As the saying goes: slow is smooth and smooth is fast. Go slow and you’ll make fewer unforced errors. Not zero errors – nobody can accomplish that – but fewer, and the ones you do make won’t set you back the way others would.
As you acclimate to this new life, heal those wounds and build your network, then you can give yourself permission to date. And just as you took your new life slowly, you should take dating at a measured pace. You’re exploring a new world, full of fascinating and thrilling experiences you’ve never had before. It’s going to be incredibly tempting to dive headfirst into it. But trust me: you don’t want to do that. Taking things slowly, without the pressure to reach any particular milestone – whether it be a kiss, sex, or a romantic relationship – will give you the clarity and confidence to pick experiences and opportunities that are right for you – ones that meet your needs, partners who are actually compatible with you and who will be able to be the sort of partner you need… not just the ones you want right now.
I know, I know, you’re finally off the leash that’s been strangling you and holding you back and you want to explore everything all at once. But if you slow things down, build the foundation first and then methodically, carefully build on that foundation, you’ll do much better. You won’t feel as overwhelmed, you won’t shred your self-esteem and you’ll meet a far more compatible bunch of people than if you rush things.
Take that slower pace and give building that foundation the care and attention it deserves, then work outward from there. Soon you’ll discover that you’ve solved those problems that’ve been holding you back… and you won’t have had to do it alone, either.
Please send your questions to Dr. NerdLove at his website (www.doctornerdlove.com/contact); or to his email, firstname.lastname@example.org